A tent was set up outside University of New Mexico Hospital to triage adult patients. The hospital is one of several in New Mexico that are treating a surge of people with respiratory viruses. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

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Amid a surge of patients pushing local hospitals beyond their licensed capacity, the University of New Mexico Hospital opened a tent outside the emergency room to triage adult patients.

Other local hospitals are also taking measures to free up more space, as doctors are reporting they are treating more patients than at any point during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is obviously a temporary response, but it’s something that we felt like would be really helpful during this very busy time,” said Dr. Steve McLaughlin, the chair of the UNM Department of Emergency Medicine.

Physicians at Albuquerque-area hospitals held a briefing Monday morning during which they asked the public to wear masks in some settings, stay up-to-date on COVID and influenza vaccines and not to go into public when sick.

A tent was put up outside University of New Mexico Hospital to triage adult patients. Hospitals throughout the city are having to create more space to treat patients. Hospital officials said they are busier than they were during the past two winters, when COVID-19 was driving up hospital admissions. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

“The last couple of years, when we were masking, there was very, very little influenza, very little colds, very little RSV,” said Dr. Jason Mitchell, the chief medical officer at Presbyterian Healthcare Services. “So we know that masking works.”

Dr. Vesta Sandoval, the chief medical officer at Lovelace Health System, said respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, influenza and COVID are all fueling the rise in hospitalizations.

“It just becomes exceptionally difficult to try and move patients throughout the state to find the correct level of care for these patients,” she said. “Everyone is experiencing what some people have termed the ‘triple-demic.’”

Dr. David Scrase, the acting health secretary, issued a public health emergency order earlier this month, which returned the state to the “hub-and-spoke” model of patient care and made it easier for hospitals to transfer patients to different facilities around the state.

Physicians at local hospitals said their recent patient populations exceed the number of patients they treated during the last two winters, when COVID was driving the hospitalizations.

“We’ve had our large RSV surge, with a lot of kids in our hospital simultaneously. We have had quite an increase in COVID patients … in the hospital, and this is the worst influenza year in the last decade,” Mitchell said. “And so we’ve got all three things coming together.”

Physicians at UNMH said that at any given time, about 100 adults and 20 children are waiting for a hospital bed. They warned people to expect long wait times in the emergency room.

What’s causing the increase in the respiratory viruses?

Sandoval said that fewer adults are getting vaccines this year. She said in a usual year, about 50% of adults get a flu vaccine. But she said in some communities this year, only about 20% of people are vaccinated against the flu.

Officials with the Department of Health didn’t say Monday how many people are getting flu shots this year compared to other years.

“The influenza vaccine has been around for a long time, and it’s really effective this year,” Mitchell said. “There’s nothing new or scary about it. So please go out and get it.”